April 8th, 2021

The Challenges of Auditory Processing Disorder in the Professional Setting

I was diagnosed with Auditory Processing Disorder at age 12. Having this hearing disorder made my academic journey a challenging one and negatively impacted my self-confidence throughout my childhood years. Early on in our lives we are told that our ability to succeed academically will determine our future. My inability to perform at the level of my peers made me feel as if I was both unintelligent and unlikely to pursue academia. During parent teacher conferences, I remember being told that I was not grasping the curriculum at the same rate of other students in my grade. I recall not being able to remember what homework was assigned during class since it was typically assigned verbally. Sometimes I didn’t realize work was being assigned at all. I would end up calling a friend after school asking if we were assigned any work. It took me longer to complete assignments than others in my grade. I always felt a sense of shame for needing extra help to complete my work, especially when I ended up getting help from my mother who worked multiple jobs in addition to raising me. As I became older, I realized that my need for additional time was not due to a lack of intelligence, but rather a reflection of my delayed ability to process verbal information.

Auditory Processing Disorder is a type of learning disability impacting the auditory perceptions of vowel sounds. This can cause misinterpretations of specific words or a slower processing speed of verbal communications. People with auditory processing disorder often struggle to hear the slight sound differences of certain words. For instance, a person with Auditory Processing Disorder might hear two or three completely different words in a sentence than are being verbalized by the speaker. It’s common for me to misinterpret people during conversations, one of the things I do to mitigate this is to repeat back what was said to the best of my abilities in an attempt to clarify any potential misinterpretations. Sometimes I might say “I beg your pardon, I believe I may have misheard you”. Depending on a person’s pattern of speech, it may be easier for me to process their words, especially if they speak at a predictable moderate pace.

While Auditory Processing Disorder presents challenges within the lecture style of teaching commonly used within the academic setting, it can present a series of challenges within the professional setting as well. The first time I noticed this challenge in the professional context was when I briefly worked at a restaurant as a college student. I had trouble hearing the customers give their orders and would always find myself asking them to repeat what they had said and would attempt to recite back their order to them. This was also increasingly difficult when I would write down the takeout orders as people called in over the phone with the competing sounds of restaurant patron conversations, chefs shouting instructions, the collision of cutlery, and the city traffic from a few feet away. This was even more challenging when I briefly worked as a Starbucks barista. Many of the drink orders would be a long complex series of words often verbalized by those who lack patience or adept annunciation abilities.

Looking back at some of the corporate jobs I’ve held, it’s easy to see all the areas of friction, however I have developed strategies to reduce this Auditory Processing Disorder-induced hindrance. Certain managers don’t like to send instructions by email, this is a big problem for those diagnosed with APD. During a fundraising internship my senior year at American University, I received feedback from my supervisor midway through the internship. I was rated on five different categories receiving a 3 out of 10 score for following verbal instructions. I later explained to my supervisor that I had a hearing condition called Auditory Processing Disorder which most likely was impacting my ability to follow verbal instructions. I did not mention this in my application or before my internship began because I didn’t want it to sway my chances of becoming employed by this organization at the conclusion of my internship. I have noticed that if I include my disability in a job application, I typically won’t get an interview. Or, I won’t proceed to the next steps of an interview once I’ve mentioned that I have APD. In April 2020 shortly after the Covid19 stay at home order was put in place, I was let go from my job at a data analytics startup. I had only worked at this startup for 5 full months before being let go. One of the complaints they had was my “constant need for follow up or clarification after receiving verbal instructions”.

I brought my APD to their attention after my three-week severance details were finalized. I don’t think bringing APD to their attention would have made a difference at any point during my employment there. Before and after COVID-19 this company had been facing high turnover. I believe I was a statistic within that turnover. I think the lack of written instruction was really a direct result of my superiors not fully understanding what projects they wanted me to complete for the clients I was assigned to serve. I believe any complex job task should have a clear trail of email communication since phone conversations can’t be fully tracked or measured.

Any time I receive verbal instructions I take down notes and attempt to repeat back what was said asking for additional clarifications to ensure nothing was missed. I follow up via email even if I believe that I understood everything that was said. Whenever possible I will ask for written instructions or written documents I can refer to as needed. While APD certainly has presented challenges in my life both personally and professionally, it has forced me to become a better communicator and take additional steps to ensure I’m able to be an active listener. When it comes to choosing whether or not to disclose your disability to your employer, I don’t believe there is a clear advantage either way. If you can predict potential workplace challenges being exacerbated by your disability, it might be best to disclose it to your employer, but disclosing your disability early on may have negative repercussions as well. I hope in sharing my story I can better educate others on both the challenges Auditory Processing Disorder can create while also shedding light on potential ways to reduce those challenges.

This blog was written by NCLD’s Young Adult Leadership Council member, Nick Leininger.

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